It has now been over two months since we started this blog, and we have had an active twitter account for about a month. Our aim was to be on the cutting edge–a blog and twitter feed that did more than publish the official Air Force point of view, but also provided provocative content that might actually reflect the views of some of the Air Force’s sharpest critics. We thought that it might be time to reflect on why we have decided to experiment in social media and provide some of the lessons we have learned about how federal agencies and officials can effectively engage in social media, while still remaining true to their mission.
So why did we start this experiment with social media? We had several reasons. First, and foremost, we wanted to create a useful forum and resource for the rather large Air Force legal community. This includes both content that could be useful to lawyers in the field, as well as an opportunity for these lawyers (and our non-legal staff) to write about areas of expertise. Second, we wanted to use this blog as a platform to educate the external community about the issues, problems and concerns that confront our legal team every day. Finally, we were concerned that the Air Force legal team (and perhaps the larger Department of Defense legal team) was isolated from national security lawyers working in the private sector, academics and think tanks. They didn’t know us, and we didn’t know them. This blog and our twitter feed are an effort to engage with the national security lawyers (and foreign policy professions) working on issues of concern to the Air Force.
We are clearly still on a learning curve (and we’ve certainly had some missteps along the way), but here are some lessons we have learned so far about being an effective participant in social media:
- Federal agencies sites that do nothing more than publish press releases are useful, but they miss the real value of social media. From the very start, we have aimed to do more. Much as the Department of Defense “Early Bird” clipping service routinely reprints commentary sharply critical of U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. military, we have used our blog and twitter account to point our readers to points of view that might be contrary to our own views and those of the Air Force. We think this makes our blog more interesting, and also more useful–particularly for our internal audience that might not be exposed to these views. We hope it also communicates that the Air Force legal community is not insular, but is instead willing to listen to (and engage with) our sharpest critics.
- Social media is social–to be most effective, we need to be engaged in a conversation with our readers. Quite frankly, we have been disappointed that there are so few comments on our blog. That is one of the reasons we started a twitter feed. We are trying to do more than merely post our own content on our twitter feed–we are also re-tweeting relevant posts of others (even when we disagree), and we have engaged directly with the arguments of others. (This has clearly been a surprise to many–in one instance, we were actually challenged whether we were allowed to engage on a topic, and in another instance, we were asked why we were re-tweeting content that opposed U.S. policy).
- The real challenge for a federal agency is that we have to be more constrained than we would be in our personal capacity. We have to make plain that we don’t necessarily agree or disagree with the content that we point to, we have to be careful that we not disclose attorney-client information, and, of course, we have to take special care not to disclose classified information. Yet, even with these constraints, federal agencies can use social media to do more than merely push an agenda, and we have been very pleased that both the Department of Defense and Air Force public affairs professionals have been so encouraging of our efforts to really engage.
So how are we doing? How can we improve? This is clearly a work in progress, and we certainly welcome your input!
Charles A. Blanchard
United States Air Force